I guess it’s just the nature of some people to believe in highly improbable conspiracy theories. When something earth shattering happens, a simple explanation just doesn’t seem good enough for them. There has to be more to the story! There are many folks out there who believe one such conspiracy was that NASA faked the Apollo moon landings. Writer director Peter Hyams started thinking about this subject when he was working on CBS’ television coverage of the historic events. Years later, it led to a film about NASA faking the first manned trip to Mars, 1977’s “Capricorn One.”
The film begins as the clock is counting down to the launch of the Mars mission. All is going as planned when, at the last moment, the three astronauts (James Brolin, Sam Waterston, and OJ Simpson) are told there is an emergency and asked to vacate the ship. They are flown to an abandoned army base and dropped in a white room where they are soon joined by a NASA bigwig played by Hal Holbrook. Now, I’ve seen enough movies to know that if Hal Holbrook suddenly shows up in a white room at an abandoned army base, chances are he’s not bringing good news. It seems that the president has been threatening to end the space program. The future of the organization depends on the success of the Mars mission. But a contractor delivered a faulty life support system, making that known to Washington would’ve been disastrous for NASA. So, a decision was made to fake the mission rather than face cancellation. Mission control in Houston thinks everything is real. Recordings from run-throughs with the astronauts are being used and the rocket was actually launched, and will return many months later. Only a few key people know the truth. The astronauts are needed to film scenes of the landing. At first the three men refuse, but when Holbrook threatens harm to their families (who are all returning from the launch on the same plane), they comply.
The astronauts are hidden away for months. After all, a trip to Mars and back takes awhile. Everything comes off without a hitch, except for an industrious NASA technician (Robert Walden) who begins to notice some of the signals from this ship in outer space seem to be coming from only 300 miles away. He begins to share his quandary with a reporter friend (Elliott Gould) over a pool game, and then suddenly vanishes. Gould begins to investigate and soon finds himself in danger as well.
The time finally arrives to stage the splashdown of the astronauts, but a problem occurs. As the module returns to earth, the heat shield fails, causing the craft to completely disintegrate. All three astronauts are believed to be dead. The men quick catch on to the situation and make their escape. Now they are making their way across the desert, with Holbrook’s hired goons in pursuit and Gould trying to discover the truth.
“Caprcorn One” is not without it’s problems, but it is an intriguing story. The script is solid with some moments of suspense and even some good humor mixed in. Two action sequences, a runaway car sequence and a helicopter chase, are the film’s best moments. However, the ending is completely unsatisfying…better suited to an 80’s made-for-tv movie.
Though enjoyable, the film does require the viewer to suspend disbelief…big time. I think even some rabid conspiracy theorists will have trouble accepting that an elaborate ruse like this, with only a few stuffed suits at the reigns, could fool most of the folks at mission control for months and months. It’s surprising that the film was made with cooperation from NASA…they don’t come off looking good. And while we’re on the subject of the unbelievable aspects of this film…Gould’s character manages to figure out that there are astronauts hoofing it across the desert with next to no evidence. But hey, it’s just a movie…the movie is still interesting.
Though the story comes across well, the performances struck me as somewhat uneven. Of the three astronauts, only Waterston’s performance is interesting. Brolin’s performance is wooden. He seems to be playing the over-idealized image of an American hero…which comes across on screen as absence of personality. OJ Simpson’s presence is stunt casting. He’s given very little to do and all his dialogue could probably fit on one page of the script. Still, probably the strangest piece of casting is Telly Savalas’ brief role as a bi-plane pilot. It’s a funny bit part, but it’s actually somewhat distracting to have a star like Savalas in the role. On the other hand, Brenda Vaccaro, who usually annoys me to death, puts in a great performance as Brolin’s wife. Holbrook and Gould are also very good in their roles.
For those of you who are conspiracy theorists…you’ll want to check this one out. Hey, wait a minute! Hyams worked on TV broadcasts of the moon landing!?! Perhaps this is really a veiled attempt by Hyams to come clean…to tell the real story!?! He’s known the truth all along!! And thus, another conspiracy theory is born.